A horticulture step back in time

When the early settlers traveled west to northern Nevada with gold fever, they had few thoughts about horticulture. Digging and panning were far more important than careful planting, pruning or cultivating. In the 1913 book, "History of Nevada," P. Beveridge Kennedy, University of Nevada, Reno, professor of botany and horticulture, wrote about local horticulture.

It seemed that in 1913 people rarely planted more than 10 acres of fruit. When they did plant fruit, it was only as a secondary crop to their farm crops. He commented on the vagaries of northern Nevada growing seasons, "as would naturally be expected the orchards located on the foothills have more success in escaping the numerous and severe spring frosts of the region."

In the low-lying areas, smudging had been used for years to increase the survivability of fruit crops. On nights when freezes were expected, farmers burned old manure piles, rubbish and wood to raise the temperatures in their orchards. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn't. The Nevada Agriculture Experiment Station developed oil heaters that worked to save crops more efficiently. Without smudging, a good crop only resulted about once every five years because of late spring freezes.

Unpredictable weather wasn't the only challenge for Nevada's early fruit farmers. Even if they could produce a crop that might make them a profit, there was no way to store anything. So in good years, they immediately turned what they couldn't sell into vinegar or cider or fed it to their animals. Securing affordable labor was another issue. Although strawberries grew well, labor costs precluded commercial viability. Kennedy said that raspberries were a profitable crop, but that "peaches, plums, pears, blackberries and cherries are grown to some extent but not extensively enough to be considered commercially."

Another interesting tale is that of the hermit who created a horticulture paradise in the mountains where the Truckee River enters Pyramid Lake. He lived there 42 years and grew apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes and 1,000 almond trees in poor soil and with little water. He used water-harvesting techniques, catching snowmelt in miniature reservoirs. He then watered his plants using a bucket. His dry farming methods could teach us a lot today: "The holes for the trees were dug five feet deep and nearly as wide, and in them he placed rotten sagebrush and grass and everything that would tend to hold moisture and give it up to the tree gradually."

If you would like to read more about Nevada's horticultural history, go to nevadaobserver.com or Google "horticulture in Nevada."

For information on gardening, contact me, 887-2252 or skellyj@unce.unr.edu, or your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at www.unce.unr.edu.

"Ask a Master Gardener" at mastegardeners@unce.unr.edu.

-- JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension Educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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